Brookline Booksmith bookseller Amy Brabenec met up with author Leigh Bardugo at last Saturday’s Boston Teen Author Festival, which coincided with the release of the author’s latest novel, Six of Crows (Holt). In it, Bardugo returns to Ravka, the world of her Grisha trilogy, in which six misfits stage a heist. In Bardugo’s panel discussion at the Festival, she was asked to choose three words to describe her new book, and offered “dangerous, criminal, and action-packed.” Here, Bardugo talks about writing multiple perspectives, the tension in plotting a heist, and hockey.
Six of Crows is told from multiple perspectives. We’ve seen some of that from you with the short stories that you’ve done to correspond with the Grisha trilogy. What drew you to doing a whole book like that?
I knew as soon as I got the idea to write a heist book. It felt very natural to me that I would have to write in multiple points of view because a big part of writing a heist is withholding information.
Did you have a hard time switching from character to character? Do you write chronologically? Or did you write each character’s pieces all at once?
I wrote linearly on this book. I like to say that I always have a whole book in front of me. I write down the major beats, the major action moments or emotional moments. In theory that’s a book it’s just one page long. Then I start to go back and fill things in. So I know what the general structure is and if I need to have a placeholder or a few placeholders I can move along without getting bogged down.
When I did the zero draft for Six of Crows, it was a very organic process. A lot of multiple POV books have different timelines happening – they’re in different locations. In this case, until fairly late in the book, everybody is basically in the same scene. They’re picking up where one character left off, so it’s a different kind of momentum that’s carrying you through. It has fewer of the problems of switching POVs. And initially all of their voices were very similar to one another. It took several drafts to get to a point where I really felt like I knew who they were.
Did you find it hard to look at some of the characters you had written from the point of view of through someone else’s eyes? We’re in Kaz’s head but then we’re going to see Kaz as Jesper sees him.
Honestly, I think that’s one of the great pleasures of writing multiple POV, because there’s so much tension in that – between the way that a character is perceived and the way he perceives himself. You know, the dialogue that’s happening within them while another scene is happening on the surface. All of that, for me, was sort of the most fun of writing the book. Especially because a lot of these characters are lying to each other and to themselves about who they are and what their motives are. It means the audience knows a lot of things that the group as a whole does not.
A heist, as an actual thing, has to be meticulously plotted. Did you have to plot this out exactly with how everything was going to happen? Did it still surprise you?
Yes. Writing a heist was far more challenging than contending with multiple POVs and flashbacks and all those things, because heists – the satisfaction of a heist – really has to do with the reveal of information. So I had to know which characters knew what when, as much as I needed to know where they were and what the actual action sequences were. [I tried] finding those high points within that and the low points within [the story], to keep it dramatically interesting, so it couldn’t just be clockwork.
But I think the thing that really helped me unlock the heist was that I really thought about what the challenge was going to be for each character to accomplish the goal, and how each of their fatal flaws was going to get in the way of that. I plotted it on a whiteboard, I plotted it in Scrivener, I plotted it in Word. I even put all of the heist into my Google calendar at 15-minute increments. And my policy was basically “whatever it takes.” You know, if I got stuck or if I didn’t know where to go I would just sort of switch forms and it was very challenging. But there was a moment where all of a sudden I was reading through what I had written and thought ‘oh, this started to become fun again.’
You had said that the challenge of a heist, the fun part, is the reveal of information, how you get it in pieces. I’ve seen heist movies that aren’t as entertaining on a second watch because the twist has been revealed. Did you worry about that while you were writing?
I don’t worry about that because most of our expectations from heists come from film and television. And that creates a problem for writers because the visual tricks of those mediums do not work on the written page. So you have to come up with new ways to satisfy the expectations of the heist. And I hope that means that people will gain more satisfaction from going back and reading because they don’t have the moment where you go into flashback and you see the guy slipping the credit card into the other guy’s pocket. So it’s a different means of releasing that information and I think it’s a different experience all together for the reader. In part because it’s a much denser medium. I’m throwing a lot of detail at people and a lot of false leads, so I hope that going back to the beginning of the puzzle and seeing the way it all fit together will give people a different experience on the second read.
The Grisha trilogy follows a character with a grand destiny, but the characters in Crows seem at first glance almost insignificant. What made you want to explore the same world, but through people nobody usually pays attention to?
I didn’t think about it at the time, but I do think one of the reasons I chose to tell this story and one of the reasons I found this idea compelling was that I was stepping away from ‘chosen one’ narratives. I love those stories and there’s a reason they’re so resonant in fantasy, and the Grisha trilogy follows that hero’s journey pretty closely. I think I really wanted to tell a story about kids who were not necessarily ordinary – they’ve had fairly extraordinary lives, they have fairly extraordinary skills – but whose motivations lay in more ordinary places. Who were just trying to get by, who just trying to make a buck, who had their own motives and ambitions that have very little to do with saving the world. I think, too, that I’m always interested in the people who deal with repercussions of the actions of supposedly great men and women: the ordinary soldiers who are fighting on the front lines, as opposed to the general who’s making decisions from a room somewhere safe.
Your books have a lot to do with your characters, but they also have a lot to do with finding out what it is you’re willing to fight for. In Six of Crows the characters all have their own motivations for doing the thing that they’re doing. Which character’s cause do you think you’d be most likely to back? What do you think you’re willing to fight for?
That’s an interesting question. Oh golly, I wish I could say it was one of the nobler causes but I’m going to have to go with Kaz. Revenge and sweet, sweet dollar bills. I think that my motivations have changed a lot over time. I think that my ambition has really become to be happy. That’s one of the luxuries of getting older and finding the job that you love, the career that you love – that then you can start thinking about ‘OK, well, how much success is enough success?’ or ‘how much money is enough money?’ and ‘how can I build my life in a way that looks the way I want it to?’ As opposed to some kind of dream of a life that I had when I was 15. And none of the kids in my books is at that point. They’re all living on a razor’s edge so they have a greater right to want the things they want and take the measures that they do to achieve them. I feel like if I engaged in any of those behaviors I would just be a horrible person.
They all have different skills and different specialties that are important to the heist. Whose skill would you most like to have?
Ooo, Inej’s! I am so clumsy! Like I fall off of bicycles. I was on a bicycle the other day and I was wearing this cute summer dress, just riding along and thinking that I was in like a Zooey Deschanel video and then I literally tipped over into the street. I would like to have Inej’s stealth and grace and acrobatic ability. I’ve gotten very used to falling off of things. It’s almost like that’s my skill! I’m great at falling down and getting back up.
You mentioned that you were watching a lot of hockey while writing Six of Crows. Who is your team and are any of your characters based on or inspired by any players?
My team is the L.A. Kings, and none of the characters is inspired by hockey players, but there are a lot of hockey player names in Six of Crows.
You’re working on the second book, but what else do you see yourself working on? Are you going to stick around the Grishaverse?
I’m going to take a little break from the Grishaverse, or at least that’s my plan. Although, to be fair, that was my plan when I finished the trilogy, and then I got the idea for this book and I was like, ‘whelp, we’re going back in!’
I think I’m going to take a few ideas that I really want to work on, a few other magical systems I want to explore. I love writing in the Grisha world but I’ve created so many rules there that I kind of want to work in new territory again. I’ve written a couple of short stories this year. I’ve written one for Slasher Girls and Monster Boys (Dial, Aug.) and I have one coming out in a Stephanie Perkins anthology, Summer Days and Summer Nights (St. Martin’s Griffin, June 2016), which was so much fun to write because it’s set in our world but it still has a strong magical element. So I have a few things in mind and we’ll just have to see which one takes shape after the sequel to Six of Crows is done.
Do you ever see yourself branching out into contemporary realism?
It’s hard for me to ever imagine writing – I mean, never say never – but it’s hard for me to imagine writing a world with no magic in it. I just am not that interested in reality.
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Holt, $18.99 Sept. ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7